Elton John (Deluxe Edition)

Elton John was a lot of things — sideman, session man and flop, with a long tail of failed solo releases, including the 1969 LP Empty Sky — before 1970's Elton John made him an overnight star. He wasn't afraid to admit it. John packed a bonus scrapbook in the original lavish packaging of 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy with bad-hair photos, comic music-press ads ("You've been warned! Elton John is 1968's great new talent") and other ample proof of his time, with lifelong lyricist Bernie Taupin, in Sixties-pop boot camp. That book is miniaturized for this reissue. Everything else here has ballooned; each album now has a second CD of demos, stray singles and, in the case of Captain Fantastic, a complete 1975 live premiere of the record. On Elton John, the extras actually trump the baroque strings and hippie-gospel chorales that crowded "Sixty Years On" and "Take Me to the Pilot." Stripped-bare demos of nearly every song on the record highlight the '68 Beatles and '58 Jerry Lee Lewis in John's voice and piano. With its flinty guitars and the natural gunslinger's gait of "Country Comfort" and "Burn Down the Mission," 1971's Tumbleweed Connection needs no improvement; it is one of the best country-rock albums ever written by London cowboys. But an early epic take of "Madman Across the Water," cut at the sessions with glam-blues guitar by Mick Ronson, is reason enough to buy this edition. An instant Number One hit, Captain Fantastic was, ironically, a great concept — a look back at John and Taupin's pre-fame labors — short on songs as great as the ones that made them famous, except for the opulent ballad "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." The concert version is the same flawed album but with muted applause — until the encores.